GMAT Tip of the Week: Ernie Els, The Masters, and the First Ten GMAT Questions

GMAT Tip of the WeekAt this weekend’s The Masters golf tournament, the most notable piece of news isn’t the leaderboard, but rather the guy least likely to get near it. Ernie Els set a record with a nine-stroke, quintuple bogey on his first hole of the tournament, effectively ending his tournament minutes after he began it. And in doing so, he also provided you with some insight into the “First Ten Questions” myth that concerns so many GMAT test-takers.

With 18 holes each day for 4 days (Quick mental math! 18×4 is the same as 9×8 – halve the first number and double the second to make it a calculation you know well – so that’s 72 holes), any one hole shouldn’t matter. So why was Els’ first hole such a catastrophe?

It forces him to be nearly perfect the rest of the tournament, because he’s playing at such a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, Day 1 leader Jordan Spieth shot par (“average”) his first few holes and Rory McElroy, in second place at the end of the day, bogeyed (one stroke worse than average) a total of four holes on day one. The leaders were far from perfect themselves – another important lesson for the GMAT – but by avoiding a disastrous start, they allowed themselves plenty of opportunities to make up for mistakes.

And that brings us to the GMAT. Everyone makes mistakes on the GMAT, and that often happens regardless of difficulty level. So if you’re shooting for a top score and you miss half of the first ten questions, you have a few problems to contend with.

For starters, you have to “get hot” here soon and go on a run of correct answers. Secondly, you now have a lot fewer problems available to go on that hot streak (there are only 27 more Quant or 31 more Verbal questions after the first ten). And finally, the scoring/delivery algorithm doesn’t see you as “elite” yet so the questions are going to be a little easier and less “valuable,” meaning that you’ll need to “get hot” both to prove to the computer that you belong at the top level and then to demonstrate that you can stay there.

That’s the Ernie Els problem – regardless of how good you are, you’re probably going to make mistakes, so when you force yourself to be nearly perfect on the “easier” problems you end up with a tricky standard to live up to. Even if you really should be scoring at the 700-level, you don’t have a 100% probability of answering every 500-level problem correctly. That may well be in the 90%+ range, and maybe your likelihood at the 600 level is 75 or 80%. Getting 7, 8, 9 problems right in a row is a tall order as you dig your way out of that hole.

So the first 10 problems ARE important, but not because they have that much more power over the rest of the test – it’s because the more of them you miss, the more unrealistically perfect you have to be. The key is to “not blow it” on the first 10, rather than to “do everything you can to get them all right,” which is the mindset that holds back plenty of test-takers.

Again take the Masters: the leaderboard on Thursday night is never that close to the leaderboard on Sunday evening. Very often it’s someone who starts well, but is a few strokes off the lead the first few days, who wins. The GMAT is similar: a lot can happen from questions 11 through 37 (or 41), so by no means can you celebrate victory a quarter of the way through. Your goal shouldn’t be to be perfect, but rather to get off to a good start. Getting  7 questions right and having sufficient time to complete the rest of the section is much, much better than getting 9 right but forcing yourself to rush later on.

Essentially, as Ernie Els and thousands of GMAT test-takers have learned the hard way, you won’t win it in the first quarter, but you can certainly lose it there.  As you budget your time for the first 10 questions of each section, take a few extra seconds to double-check your work and make sure you’re not making egregious mistakes, but don’t over-invest at the expense of the critical problems to come.

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By Brian Galvin.